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History’s Most Talented Teams

Which rosters contained the most Hall-of-Famers in one given season?

When Dominik Hasek was revealed to be part of the star-studded 2015 Hall of Fame class as a first-ballot recipient, an inevitable outcome barring one last return from retirement, we got another chance to reminisce about the 49-year-old Czech’s greatness. The six Vezinas in Buffalo, the back-to-back Hart trophies, the unfathomably dominant gold medal run* … many swear by Patrick Roy as their top goalie, and some prefer Martin Brodeur, but Hasek is without debate the best statistical netminder in the history of hockey.

A few took the time to remember one team in particular that Hasek manned the pipes for — a team so good and so talented that a legend like Hasek merely blended into the roster. This description can only fit one team, one glorious season … the 2001-2002 Detroit Red Wings.

A 116-point, Presidents’ Trophy-winning club in the regular season, this Wings team featured a record ten future Hall-of-Famers players on it. Ten. General manager Ken Holland traded for Hasek before the season and signed aging-but-still-point-per-game All-Stars Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille to add to a roster that could reserve its own room in Toronto. Already inducted in the Hall with Hull and Robitaille are …

-       Chris Chelios, 11-time All Star and three-time Norris Trophy recipient

-       Igor Larionov, passing wizard and “Russian Five” pioneer

-       Brendan Shanahan, 600-goal scorer and Triple Gold Club member

-       Steve Yzerman, Executive Director of Team Canada and the franchise’s two-decade-long captain

Joining Hasek in first-ballot immortality next year will be Sergei Federov, the ’93-’94 Hart winner and Soviet icon, and seven-time Norris Trophy recipient Nicklas Lidstrom, perhaps the best defenseman in NHL history after Bobby Orr. Three-time Selke winner Pavel Datsyuk — Federov and Larionov’s Padawan of sorts — was a rookie on that team, too.

And the coach of this illustrious squad? None other than Scotty Bowman, the consensus Greatest of All Time in his sport. Owning nine rings across four decades and birthing a son who has engineered two Stanley Cup champions in Chicago, he’s hockey’s Vince Lombardi or Red Auerbach and brings the total to 11.

Speaking of those guys …

No NHL team has housed more Hall-of-Fame talent on one roster than the ’01-’02 Wings, so theoretically speaking, no team was more talented. True, guys like Chelios, Hull, and Robitaille were well out of their prime by the time that magical season rolled around, but while skill disappears with age, talent never does.

I became curious as to what other teams carried the most Hall-of-Famers in the other Big Four sports, and it didn’t take long to find Detroit’s biggest competitors.

1961 Green Bay Packers: 12 Hall-of-Famers

The ’62 Packers were actually the better team (and probably Lombardi’s best overall), winning 14 of the 15 games they played in and finishing with the fourth-highest point-differential in NFL history, but the ’61 version won a title as well and had one more Hall-of-Famer** on the roster while doing it.

They had 11 such players in total, with Lombardi bringing the personnel total to an even dozen. Green Bay’s top-ranked scoring offense had Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, and Jim Taylor in the backfield with Forrest Gregg and Jim Ringo blocking for them up front, while their second-ranked defense had six men who would eventually be enshrined in Canton. That unit featured Willie Davis and Henry Jordan on the defensive line, the great Ray Nitschke manning the middle linebacker spot, and had Emlen Tunnell, Willie Wood, and a rookie Herb Adderley in the secondary.

This team was probably more known for being the debut season of the Packers’ iconic “G” on their helmets, but they were still a pretty damn good group. They went 11-3 in the regular season and destroyed the New York Giants in the title game to the tune of 37-0, holding Hall-of-Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle to one of his worst games as a professional — a mere 65 yards through the air on 6-20 passing while tossing four interceptions, two of ‘em to Adderley and Nitschke.

1962-1963 Boston Celtics: 10 Hall-of-Famers

This is why context matters.

The ’62-’63 Celtics were a great team, no doubt. They finished with the best record in the league before winning their fifth-straight championship, and nine of the 13 players on the roster would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame. Nine! But while Detroit’s honorees were virtually all shoe-ins — as mentioned, Federov, Lidstrom, and Datsyuk are all stone-cold locks, and only Shanahan had to wait to his second year of eligibility for induction — a lot of these Celtics rode in on the coattails of an elite minority.

Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, and Bill Russell are among the best players to ever step foot on a basketball court, and Red Auerbach belongs on the coaching version of Mount Rushmore, but check out the career slash-lines of their fellow Hall-of-Fame teammates during those dynasty years. Keep in mind that the pace in that decade was much faster than in today’s NBA:

Player Points per Game Rebounds per Game Assists per Game Field Goal Percentage
Tom Heinsohn 18.6 8.8 2.0 .405
K.C. Jones 7.4 3.5 4.3 .387
Sam Jones 17.7 4.9 2.5 .456
Clyde Lovellette 17.0 9.5 1.6 .443
Frank Ramsey 13.4 5.5 1.8 .399
Tom Sanders 9.6 6.3 1.1 .428

K.C. Jones and Sanders are especially egregious inclusions, neither having been named to a single All-Star team in their combined 22 seasons. It’s worth mentioning that a lot of these guys competed against each other for points and boards, but the NBA Hall of Fame is far more lax on its accomplishments and accolades than those of the other major sports. Accruing an eye-popping amount of hardware was enough to send most of these resumes over the edge of qualification.

1928 New York Yankees: 10 Hall-of-Famers

Much like the ’61 Packers, this team was a year removed from a more famous relative. While the lineup of the ’27 Yankees were dubbed “Murderers’ Row” for their ridiculous offense (.872 team OPS!) and ridiculous winning percentage (71.4!), the ’28 edition still won 101 games and breezed to a World Series sweep.

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had another set of fantastic seasons, combining for 81 home runs and notching an OPS+ of 206 and 193, respectively. Earle Combs walked over twice as many times as he struck out, Waite Hoyt won 23 games, Herb Pennock finished fourth in the league in ERA and sixth in pitcher WAR, and Tony Lazerri posted an outstanding 145 OPS+ from the second base spot. The best Bronx Bombers were playing at their best.

The club did carry some dead weight, or at least as much a Hall-of-Fame caliber player can serve to be considered impotent. 38-year-old Stan Coveleski notched eight ineffective starts in his last year in the majors, rookie Bill Dickey was up for only 16 plate appearances (before developing into baseball’s best catcher of the 1930s), and fellow youngster Leo Durocher managed only a 76 OPS+ as the team’s utility infielder. All had their share of memorable moments in the majors; they just didn’t occur in 1928.

Manager Miller Huggins, a winner of three World Series and six pennants as New York’s skipper, is also enshrined in Cooperstown.

So who wins out?

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that all four of these teams had Hall-of-Fame coaches and ultimately won their league’s championship. Some of the greatest legends in North American sports were highlighted in this piece — Cousy, Gehrig, Hasek, Lidstrom, Nitschke, Russell, Ruth, and Starr. But after engaging in more than a cursory glance, I have to say that ’01-’02 Red Wings boast the most impressive roster.

A good amount of the Hall-of-Famers on the other three payrolls were either Veteran’s Committee picks or borderline cases that had to wait several years for inclusion, but all of Detroit’s guys were no-brainers. If Datsyuk ends up being a first-ballot selection, then only Shanahan had to wait for a second go-around. The team was home to a combined four Hart trophies, 10 Norris awards, six Vezinas, six Selkes, five Ted Lindsays, and a pair of Conn Smythe winners. Bowman rivals Lombardi and John Wooden as the top coaches in sports history, and he may the best of all of them.

Most illustrative of my point? Sans Hasek, the top-nine scorers on this team were the other nine Hall-of-Famers, from Shanahan to the 23-year-old Datsyuk. This was a special time for a special bunch, a beautiful convergence of hockey history and inimitable skill.

I hereby proclaim the 2001-2002 Detroit Red Wings as the most talented North American sports roster in recorded history. They’ll be receiving their goodie bags shortly.

* Hasek’s six-game performance in the 1998 Olympics is as impressive (if not more so) than the postseason runs from 1977 Reggie Jackson, 1989 Joe Montana, and 2011 Kemba Walker — a .961 SV%, 0.97 Goals Against Average, and a shutout of Russia in the final round. How many men in history have carried an entire country onto the Gold Medal podium? Hasek has.

** The 1960 Packers had the aforementioned 10 before the drafting of Adderley, and Tunnell’s retirement before the ’62 season brought the number back down from 11; it would remain at 10 through 1966. Green Bay drafted linebacker Dave Robinson in ‘63, but Hornung sat out the entire year on a gambling-related suspension. He returned in 1964 after Ringo was traded to the Eagles.

(@BrandonMagner)

 

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About Brandon Magner (19 Articles)
Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and is currently enrolled in the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He plans to earn his MBA before attending law school in the fall of 2015.

1 Comment on History’s Most Talented Teams

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